Bhutan’s Shingkhar-Gorgan highway: development versus environment?

A proposed highway that would run through one of Bhutan's key national parks to one of the least developed areas, epitomises the difficult balance between development and the environment
<p>The current state of the Shingkar-Gorgan road [image by: Chencho Dema]</p>

The current state of the Shingkar-Gorgan road [image by: Chencho Dema]

The saga of the 55-kilometre Shingkhar-Gorgan highway began eight years during Bhutan’s first democratically elected government.

Now, the road – or lack of it – has become a symbol of the country’s struggle to maintain a balance between conserving its largely pristine environment, and developing its infrastructure to meet increasing needs and activities.

If the road is built, it will shorten the distance between the eastern district of Lhuntse, one of the poorest in the country, and central Bumthang by almost 100 kilometres. In the future, Mongar will be 30 kilometres closer to Lhuntse, which can also be connected to Trashiyangtshe via the Minjay gewog (cluster of villages), further reducing the distance between Bhutan’s remote eastern region and the rest of the country.

The road is also expected to minimise the risks for travellers, who will no longer have to pass through Thrumshingla National Park – now officially called the Phrumsengla National Park though universally still referred to by its former name – which remains covered in ice during the winter months.

The people of Lhuntse have been pushing for the road to be completed, with both the former government under the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) and the present one under the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – backing them. But the Shingkhar-Gorgan road remains a dream. Only 20 kilometres of the road from Gorgan to Pelphu has been completed, with 35 kilometres still left to be cleared.

Both governments – Bhutan has only had two since the first elections in 2008 – have been unable to get clearance for the road from the National Environment Commission (NEC), because the road runs through a core protected area in the park Thrumshingla National Park which is the habitat of the endangered Royal Bengal tiger.

The NEC rejected the Department of Roads’ (DoR) request for an environment clearance to construct the road because the commission found that the environment impact assessment (EIA) – a key-determining factor in issuing the environment clearance – was inadequate.

“The report does not meet the NEC requirements,” said the NEC secretary Chencho Norbu, adding that most of the information in the EIA is deskwork and not based on field assessments.

For the commission to assess as per primary baseline data, it requires at least two seasons of reporting for winter and summer. But the EIA report is secondary data sourced outside the project area and based on only one season in 2011, said Norbu.

“It was never updated or reviewed so we want a more detailed study,” said Norbu.

The planned site of the road is as high as 4,000 metres above sea level and the land features are steep. But the EIA had little description of the land features and no geotechnical studies were carried out. Some of the meteorological data were also ambiguous, having sampled Bathpalathang, which is about 2,000 metres above sea level and is incomparable to Shingkhar.

“The information is not enough for us to make any call, forget about issuing the environment clearance. We need detailed information for reference,” he said. “We have already written to the Department of Roads explaining why the NEC cannot issue the clearance.”

The secretary Norbu said that his office received a response from the Department of Roads requesting the commission consider the work based on the first report and the forest clearance. But the NEC could not issue an environment clearance based on forest clearance, even though it is one of the prerequisites. The forest clearance, he explained, looks at the flora and fauna sensitivity or whether it is in the protected area.

“It does not [go] beyond that [to talk about] the geology and overall environment impact,” he said, adding that a forest clearance cannot guarantee an environment clearance because the procedures are different.

The first EIA report still states that the road passes through the core area of Thrumshingla National Park, while the Department of Roads has a forest clearance stating that it is not the core area.

“This has confused people,” said Norbu, “It is not that we are against the road or want to limit developmental activities. We just want to see that the decision is an informed one.”

Conservationists have also made objections since the idea of the road construction came into being.  Paljor J. Dorji, an adviser to the NEC, actively opposed the road when the first government tried to implement it. People think a road is the answer to everything, he said, but only a few end up using it while the rest have to slave away to maintain it.

“The Shingkhar-Gorgan road is a vital tiger habitat. It will cut through steep slopes which will ruin our watersheds,” says Dorji. “We have to protect our watersheds because our water sources are drying up. If we continue to destroy our watersheds it will affect hydropower production, one of Bhutan’s major income earners. If the road is in the genuine interest of the public, we should have it through due procedure of law.”

The request for the road was submitted by the Mongar and Lhuntse dzongkhags in 1997, according to a report by the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment Research. But the people are still waiting for the road, which is perhaps not surprising as Bhutan’s eastern districts are the least developed and affluent.

Tempa Dorji, the National Council (upper house) Member of Parliament from Lhuntse, said that the highway is expected to boost the whole eastern region’s economy and help balance development by facilitating faster agro-business and quicker travel routes for local and foreign tourists.

“It will help alleviate poverty in the region. The road has become a necessity rather than a luxury for the people of the east,” said Tempa Dorji, who reasons that only 10 kilometres of the road would pass through the core area of Thrumshingla Park, and that an alternative methodology of road construction could be used to minimise damage to the environment.

Meanwhile Dorji Choden, the works and human settlement minister, said the government is in conversation with the NEC on the issue of environment clearance. “We are still hopeful that we may be able to start the work if we are able to get the clearance,” she said.

The construction of Shingkhar-Gorgan road was included in the 2007-27 road master plan and is in line with the government policy of widening and shortening the east-west highway. The National Assembly endorsed the road’s construction in the 11th five year plan, but with the current government term ending in 2018, hope for the people of the poorest dzongkhag (Bhutan is composed of twenty dzongkhags, or governance districts) in the country is suspended.